3D Printing Software in 2021: A Comprehensive Toolbox

May 25th, 2021 16 min read

While 3D printers and filament will cost you money, the software does not. 3D printing allows you to take an image from a computer screen and set it on your workbench or kitchen table. Doing so requires a variety of software and skills. Understanding the tools available to you will help you turn your 3D vision into a physical reality faster and more easily. This is true whether you will be using the software for mechanical engineering, hobby modeling, and everything in between.

 Software TypeOSEase of UseOpen-Source
Ultimaker CuraSlicer, 3D HostingWindows, macOS, LinuxBeginnerNo
Slic3rSlicer, Auto-RepairWindows, macOS, LinuxIntermediateYes
OctoPrintRemote Printing, 3D HostingWindows, macOS, LinuxIntermediateYes
MeshlabMesh Edit and RepairWindows, macOS, LinuxAdvancedYes

What is the Best Free 3D Printing Software for you?

Unlike many pieces of this type by TrustRadius, this is less about finding the one software that works best for you. Some users may just want a simple 3D printing slicer. Others may need a slicing, editing, and remote printing group of tools. 

The reality of finding 3D printing tools is that the variation in your own experience and print complexity will require very different software. Those who are new to the field and creating simple models will probably want just a slicer. A slicer is software that converts a 3D model into 2D “slices”, that can then be used by a printer. Think of this as slicing a potato into very fine layers to make chips. 

Those with more complex models may require STL editors and repair functions. STL files are native to CAD software and hold the information of a 3D design. They can be less precise than OBJ files, given the difference in how triangular meshes are interpreted but are an industry standard. Slicers work pretty well, but are not perfect, particularly on complex models. Editing and repair tools allow users to fix these issues. 

Just as importantly, converting a model from something made on the PC to something in the real world is hard. Sometimes, a shape simply does not work well for a 3D printer. These are brilliant machines, but they have limitations. Editors allow users to push these limits and create more complicated, detailed models. 

In finding the right 3D printing software for you, it is vital to work within your experience level. Some will come with a steep learning curve and are suited to manufacturing and professional users. Others features a simpler, user-friendly interface and are made for turning hobbyist sculpting projects into reality.

 Below you can find the first episode in a comprehensive guide to 3D printing for beginners.

Ultimaker Cura – Free, Simple 3D Printing Slicer

For beginners and 3D printing hobbyists, Ulitamaker Cura offers simple, effective software. This software works as a slicer, allowing you to turn the 3D objects you model or download into something readable by your printer. 

This software works on macOS, Linux, and Windows operating systems. It is well known for its user-friendly and polished nature.  Even though Ultimaker sells its own collection of 3D printers, this software works with most common brands. It is entirely free to use.

Using the software is extremely simple. If you recently bought a 3D printer, this is probably the fastest way to go from unboxing to printing. The recommended mode sets a strong baseline, then over 400 customization options allow you to tweak to the needs of your printer. 

Another benefit that targets beginners is the fantastic community support around this software. The forums have an active following that will be great for newcomers and experienced users alike.

Ultimaker works with most of the commonly used 3D modeling software. This includes Solidworks and Siemens NX. Chances are, the software you are using is supported by this program. Ultimaker has no 3D modeling capabilities of its own. It is purely a slicer and 3D printer controller.

Ultimaker Cura lets you control most aspects of your printer from your PC (or Mac). Obviously, this will require your device to remain connected to the printer throughout the process.

Who Is Ultimaker Cura Right For?

This software is ideal for 3D printing beginners or those who want an easy-to-use slicer. Compatibility is the name of the game for Ultimaker Cura. It will work with most printers and modeling software. Those who need more advanced STL repair, editing, and remote control will want to look elsewhere. 

Slic3r – Open-Source Slicing and Basic STL Repair 

Slic3r is an open-source tool for experienced users who need more advanced functionality. This is a tool whose community is on the forefront of 3D printing development. You are unlikely to find more advanced features in non-vendor-supported software. The fact that its name uses a three as a backward “E” really shows the character of the software. It is for more tech-savvy users, will innovate, and is a little edgy in its identity. 

Some of the more advanced features include multi-extruder support and auto-support material generation. The software is lightning fast in its code generation, using multithreading to support its capabilities. You will be able to cut mesh components into multiple parts, allowing for larger prints.

Slic3r was an innovator of the hexagonal internal structure, a divergence from the more classic triangular infill architecture. The program supports a huge array of printer types, as well as remote printing. The latter includes integration with OctoPrint, which we will cover later. Depth control and the advanced constructive solid geometry allow for sturdy, heat-controlled 3D prints.

USB printing is convenient for those who keep their printers and PC in different physical locations. 

Slic3r does not include a traditional STL repair system. It does have a robust automatic repair feature that will fix common issues. Smart cooling will manage your fans, and wait systems will limit overheating and melt issues. The base flange system allows for better platform adhesion while staying easily removable.

As mentioned, this is not a beginners software. Slic3r provides plenty of educational material, and its community is extremely welcoming. That being said, open-source software often requires some more experience to use. If you have experience with 3D printing, you will likely be alright after an adjustment period. 

Who is Slic3r Right For?

This is an intermediate tool that offers advanced functionality in an open-source platform. The software is for those with a decent understanding of the “why” and “how” behind 3D printing. Those with more advanced printers, including those with larger and multi-nozzle extruders, will also enjoy this tool. Individuals who are new to 3D printing may want to consider a more user-friendly option. 

OctoPrint – Remote 3D Printing

The header really says it all for this software. OctoPrint is one of the best ways to remotely manage the entire 3D printing experience. When hooked up to the right wireless, this software will let you accept g-code from almost any slicer that exists. This includes many on this list.

OctoPrint is compatible with macOS, Windows,  Linux, and even raspberry pi systems, if you have the skill to make them work. The software can do more than just start prints. Users can set up notification systems (including error alerts) and progress information. 

A major benefit of this software is its popularity. For your use, this translates into compatibility with more software and printer types.  OctoPrint is extremely popular, and so has the largest community. In free software, the community is vital. In 3D printing, this is even more true. 

Finally, this software can be paired with cameras and viewing systems. These can be managed through a web browser. If you, like many others (including the author of this piece),  enjoy watching your 3D prints and keeping an eye on them, this will be useful. A camera can be set up to remotely view the success and failures of your 3D printing experience. 

Who is OctoPrint Right For?

Very simply, this is for those who want to take their 3D printing on the go. Busier hobbyists, worried professionals, and those who love to track their progress at a coffee shop will  appreciate this tool. It is not a comprehensive 3D printing software, and is best paired with other tools. Individuals who want a slicer or editor will want something else with OctoPrint. In summary, this is a workflow and inspection tool that compliments the best 3D printing software.

Meshlab – Advanced Repair and Editing

Meshlab offers open-source STL editing and repair. This software is designed to take 3D models from their creation software to the physical world. 

For many years, the most recent  software update was from 2016. As a result, many may overlook the capabilities of this tool. In 2020, a major update was finally released. Even before this, it was still a comprehensive editing tool. What this shows is the varied nature of this open-source software, and how different it is from something like Slic3r.

 As a mesh editor and repair tool, there are few rivals that will not cost you a penny. The software offers a huge array of tools for editing. These include features for:

  • Editing
  • Cleaning
  • Texturizing
  • Rendering
  • Inspecting
  • Mesh Conversion

As you may expect with open-source software, Meshlab supports most common OS systems. This includes macOS, Windows, and Linux. 

Some of the less-commonly discussed features of this software include its colorization and measurement tools. The former allows for comprehensive visual edits of 3D modelings. This includes material estimation and texture application. The measurement features are strong, especially for free software. These will allow for better planning for engineering and fabrication applications. 

Who Is MeshLab Right For?

This comprehensive editing tool is for those with more advanced 3D model alternation needs. Engineers, fabrication experts, and hobbyists with stricter allowances will appreciate the precision this affords. Editing tools are important for people with more complex 3D models, or those that have been tried multiple times. This is not a tool for beginners or those without an interest in the more advanced aspects of 3D model manipulation. 

CAD Software for Modeling Needs

Before any of the printing can happen, you will need the model for what you are trying to create. For some, this may involve finding one online. Users may simply want to print objects others have created. If you find yourself looking to create your own projects from scratch, you will need 3D design software.

Check out our piece on the Best Free CAD software in 2021. This piece also outlines how students can get free versions of AutoCAD products from AutoDesk. These are also fantastic for artists interested in digital sculpting projects.

Below you will find a quick reference table from this piece, as a reference guide to the choices available to you. 

­3D or 2DOSOpen SourceBiggest ProBiggest Con
NanoCADBothWindowsNoEase of Use, AutomationResource-Intensive, Missing File Organization
Sketchup FreeBothWindows, MacOSNoQuick, Easy Model CreationNew Features Often Not Free
FreeCAD3D, Limited 2DWindows, MacOS, LinuxYesActive CommunityComplex UI, Limited 2D Functionality
OnShapeBothBrowser-BasedNoNo InstallationLimited Dimensioning
LibreCAD2D, Limited 3DWindows, MacOS, LinuxYesExcellent 2D DesignLimited 3D, Limited Support

Those looking for more information about 3D modeling can also check out the CAD Category page. Broader 3D modeling exists as its own software category.  

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